South African schools
E for education
Desegregation and investment have yet to boost black schoolchildren
Jan 13th 2011 | JOHANNESBURG | from the print edition
CONGRATULATIONS to the latest crop of school matriculants have been pouring in. Despite the enforced closure of schools throughout the football World Cup, hosted by South Africa, followed by a three-week teachers’ strike, the pass rate for the 2010 school-leaving “matric” examination, taken in November, has jumped by seven percentage points to 68%, bringing an apparent end to a six-year decline. But with half of all pupils dropping out of school before taking the exam and a required pass mark of just 30-40%, it is too soon for rejoicing. Educational standards in Africa’s biggest and most advanced economy remain generally dire.
Barely one in ten South African pupils qualifies for university, and only 5% end up with a degree. South Africa does particularly badly in maths and science, coming last (out of 48 countries) in a report published in 2003 by a Dutch institute called “Trends in International Maths and Science”, a study of Grade 9 pupils (aged 15). Humiliated, it withdrew from the 2007 series, though it plans to take part in this year’s tests. If the 2010 matric results are anything to go by, it may not do much better. Barely one in four matric candidates achieved a pass in maths and less than one in five passed physical science.
Even though public schooling was desegregated in 1994, the vast majority of poor black children continue to go to severely deprived, overwhelmingly black schools. Two-thirds of state schools have no library or computer; 90% have no science laboratory; more than half of all pupils either have no text books or have to share them. Whites, by contrast, together with a small but growing contingent from the black middle class, send their children to the former all-white “Model C” state schools, with their far superior facilities, or, increasingly, to a private school.
Since 1994 the number of pupils attending independent schools has more than doubled to around 500,000 (4% of the total school population); six out of ten are black. Tuition fees, over a quarter subsidised by the state, range from a modest 1,600 rand ($230) to a hefty 80,000 rand a year. Many parents think it worth it. Class sizes are generally half those in state schools, the teachers are better qualified and the success rate a lot higher. More than 90% of private-school pupils can expect to get their matric, compared with just 30% of state-school pupils. The former Model C schools boast a similar success rate.
President Jacob Zuma has promised to make education his priority. Money is not the main problem: education already gobbles up about 20% of the government’s budget, representing over 5% of GDP. But attitudes, particularly those of the teachers, who are heavily unionised, will have to change. Angie Motshekga, the schools minister, admits that the system is largely “in crisis” and will take 20 years to fix. Others fear it may need longer.